Keeping It in Context Part Deux: Contextual Help
14 Nov 2006

Keeping It in Context Part Deux: Contextual Help

14 Nov 2006

In the first installment of this series, we examined how we can enhance search tools by allowing users to set the context of searches. In this article we will examine another key feature that aids users in completing a task within a site: the help link. Particularly, we will examine providing contextual help globally on sites: allowing users to access information pertaining to the specific task at hand.

Contextual help is an integrated means of accessing supplementary information and instructions about a feature or content. Common manifestations of contextual help are:

  • “What’s this?” or “help?” or “[?]” links located near the item of interest that open as a pop-up or more preferable an accessible overlay tooltip
  • Walkthrough tutorials that demonstrate interactions directly on the interface for example, “Show me” help links

We will focus on the former case of the contextual help links. This type of contextual help has become very common in input forms that often reserve minimal space for labels and instructions to minimize form length.

Contextual Help in Forms

For example a form could provide additional help for information requested in the form of a linked question mark (?). This information is provided in areas where users are likely to be confused or may input data incorrectly, such as the formatting for the URL.

In terms of the viability of contextual help, it has been shown that there is a higher success rate when such mechanisms are provided, although the time to success and cognitive processing required is greater. See Questioning the effectiveness of contextual online help: some alternative propositions (PDF).

The greatest advantage of this mechanism is that the user can find help while remaining in their workflow and without having to do searches in an index of help topics. The question then becomes, “why is contextual help reserved for forms?” A great majority of sites neglect to offer this valuable targeted help schema globally in their web applications and content-rich sites. Having seen the benefits for this tool in other task-oriented areas, we should seek to apply this to a great deal more than the forms on the site.

Contextual Help on a Global Scale

There are many times when a user may require assistance when using a site: searching for an item, purchasing an item, watching/downloading a video, editing a profile, etc. Wherever a contextual help link is not provided directly beside an item, users may often turn to the help link provided either in the header or footer of the web page. By filtering the results of the search based on the context from which the user enters it, we can reduce the number of clicks needed for the greater majority of users to find what they are looking for.

A very good example of this is the persistent help link on the Yahoo! website. Imagine if you were using Yahoo! Maps, and when you clicked on ‘help’ in the header, you were directed to a listing of all Yahoo! products for you to filter the help you need. My guess is you would be none-too-happy. In fact, Yahoo! keeps a help link on each portion of its site that leads to a different landing page, depending on the user’s context. This provides for a smoother user interaction with the system, and seamlessly lets users get help for the task at hand.

Contextual Help: Not Just for Portals

Although portals are prime examples of filtering help results based on context, they are not standalone cases. Let us examine some other examples:

Ecommerce Sites:

If a user is in the shopping cart of an ecommerce site, and clicks on the help link it is likely that the user needs help managing the products in their list, wants more information on shipping/return policies or needs help checking out. In this case we can present these questions and their answers in a very visible location on the help page, while still providing access to common data that may always need to be accessed, such as: availability of gift certificates, account management and contact information.

As Forrester research found:

Online shoppers have many questions about costs, shipping, returns, and privacy. None of the five major retail sites recently reviewed by Forrester answers all these questions. To build shoppers’ trust, eCommerce sites need to provide answers to the specific questions shoppers have at each step in the buying process.

Community Sites:

Community sites can have many different offerings as with a portal. Perhaps the user is searching for media or managing their network. These tasks are distinct acts which offer insight into what the user may need answered, and thus contextual help would be very effective here as well.

Incorrect Inference from Context

Some may argue against contextual help to protect those users that are outside of the context they wish to be in. That is, there may be users that click on help on a page unrelated to their desired task. This is a valid concern which should be addressed in the design of the contextual help page. Once a user has entered the help system, s/he must be able to access other help topics beyond their context. This can be addressed with breadcrumbs, as nicely done in the Yahoo! examples, or by a menu strip which can be easily accessed. Another enhancement to the user experience is to reveal the frequently asked questions along with the other topics in an effort to reach an even greater number of users within one click.

This article has examined the reasons for using contextual help within sites. To conclude, I would like to summarize the benefits of employing this mechanism:

  • Provides easy access to information related to the task at hand
  • Reduces the number of clicks and searches required to find appropriate help
  • Reduces the visibility of topics which can serve as clutter and require more cognitive processing
  • Expedites the time for completing the task by minimizing time spent looking for help
If you would like to implement contextual help on your site or make any other improvements to your user experience, we’ll be happy to discuss them with you. Get in touch with us.

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